Using ThinkMarks to Boost Comprehension of Fiction & Critical Thinking Skills with Young Readers

Hello! This week, I would like to tell you more about how I used "ThinkMarks" to help increase my students' comprehension and critical thinking skills in fiction texts.  I have a free download of my "ThinkMark Charts" for fiction in color and black and white!

As some of you may remember, I gave a brief overview of using ThinkMarks in the classroom a few weeks ago in my blog post on January 17, 2014.  Today I will give you a few more details on how we used it, just in case you want to try it, too.

This is a ThinkMark chart that can be used for fictional books.

I'm not sure who originally coined the term, "ThinkMarks," but I found it online when I was looking for some new and different ways to approach instruction in critical thinking.  I saw that some teachers use different types of bookmarks in different ways and call them ThinkMarks.  But when I saw that some teachers were using sticky notes as ThinkMarks, that's when I REALLY got excited!  I loved the idea of marking a book with a sticky note as a reference to go back to.  In my last post, I shared the idea of having children mark with a sticky note the setting, beginning, middle (problem,) or ending (solution) of the story when they find it while reading. Of course, you could also mark many other things as well, as you can see by the ThinkMark chart above!  You can see me teaching a lesson below in critical thinking as I read my book, The Gingerbread Man, to a first grade class.  (If you are short on time, skip up to the four minute mark to see the section on how I teach prediction and inference.) 

The teacher can also model this process as well to help children visualize what she is doing more easily than if she just told them verbally.  Thinking aloud while reading is an extremely powerful way to teach reading comprehension and critical thinking, but what about the children that may not process auditory information well, or simply need more visual cues to hold their attention?  Modeling the process, and then showing children how you mark the spot with a sticky note can really help the children that need that visual cue. And when children also do this, we have added a (very) little bit of movement into an otherwise completely sedentary activity, and that's always a plus!  It's not much movement, but it is some!

Using a ThinkMark Chart for Comprehension and Critical Thinking: We stored our sticky notes on the chart for safekeeping and to use next time!  You can download this chart in color here.  You can download it in black and white here.

To get started, just choose a book to read aloud to your class.  When you come to a section that you could mark, tell them what you just found, and why.  Then grab your sticky note and draw a little icon on it.  Older children can just write the word, but since I generally work with Kindergartners and first graders, I chose to make little pictures instead.  The pictures you see in this blog post were taken of a ThinkMark lesson done with first graders.

This my Gingerbread Man book that I was reading in the video above!

Inference.... with KINDERGARTNERS????

Do you think that young children can be taught to infer?  I must admit that I was a little bit nervous about this at first, and I jumped to the conclusion (predicted!) that they could not!  But when you consider what an inference really is, I think that young children infer all the time!  We just don't often call it that.  The website says, "You make an inference when you use clues from the story to figure out something that the author doesn't tell you."  We can also think of this as reading between the lines, and that's why I drew a bunch of light lines with an I in the middle on my inference icon in my ThinkMark chart above.

Can you infer what is happening in this adorable book called "Hug" by Jess Alborough? You probably can, and your little ones can, too! The sticky note shows an I with lines which is my icon for inference. I infer that the little chimp is sad because he wants a hug. I also infer that the other animals feel bad for him and want to help. Did the author tell me that? NO! I inferred it using picture clues and my own "text to self" experiences.

When children read a wordless book, they must infer what is happening.  And when they read a beginning reader with tightly controlled vocabulary, very little print, and lots of pictures, they must infer what is happening in the story as well!  I think that most young children are quite adept at inferring; we just usually don't refer to it as inference!

Predicting with Young Children is a Snap!

My students had no trouble at all predicting what might come next here and there in the stories that they were reading.  They just would sometimes forget to mark it with their ThinkMarks, that's all!  I had the children make a capital P and put it in a cloud on the sticky note for the prediction icon.

In this book, "Yes!" by Jez Alborough, the children could easily predict what was going to happen next to the little chimp, who doesn't want to go to bed. Can you see the little sticky note with the prediction icon on it?

Yes, Little Kids CAN Make Text to Self Connections!

This is just not as hard as it sounds!  All I did was ask the children if the book we were reading reminded them of something or a time in their own life and asked them to share.  Voil√°!  The flood gates were opened and I couldn't get them to STOP making text to self connections!  They were CONSTANT, CONTINUAL, EVERYWHERE, AND... well, at times downright annoying, since they wouldn't stop!  LOL!  But let's not go there!  I was just glad to see that making those connections was EASY!!!  Hooray!!!

This book, called "Yes!" by Jez Alborough, also has very few words in it and is a natural for inference and making text to self connections.  I think that since most authors of books for young children try to make their stories meaningful for little ones, the text to self connections come quite naturally!  It's just a matter of telling them what to call it and pointing out that they are there.

Teaching Kids to Form an Opinion is EASY!

Kids form opinions all the time.  Don't we constantly hear things like, "That's not fair!  He got more than me!"  "She's being mean to me!"  Each time we make a graph in class about our favorite pizza topping, ice cream, or animal, we form opinions.  The hardest thing is to teach children the word, "opinion" and what it means.

When I taught the children about forming an opinion, I simply led class discussions when they came up, asking kids what they thought about something that was happening, and I used the word opinion a lot.  I just kept saying, "What's your opinion?" each time a child offers up an opinion.

A teacher friend told me that she always used the "Pizza Question" when she taught the children about opinions.  She would ask the children if pizza was good, or not.  She said that if the kids think pizza is great, but the teacher thinks it's "yucky," then that's an opinion.  We each think we are right, but nobody can prove it."

Identifying the Parts of the Story is Probably the Hardest Part

Teaching kids to identify the parts of a story is hard.  In fact, it may be the hardest to master all of the critical thinking skills on the ThinkMark page!  Certainly, identifying the parts of the story and retelling a story seem more like simple basic skills because we hear about them more often.  But truthfully, I think they are more difficult to master than any of inference, text to self connections, forming opinions, and predicting!  Not when you take those "big boy pants" academic sounding words and apply some good old fashioned bring-it-down-to-their-level techniques that kindergarten teachers are famous for!

For some great techniques on teaching the parts of a story in an easy way, see the blog post I wrote on the topic here on January 17, 2014.

Using Talk Blocks as a Critical Thinking Tool

I used "Talk Blocks" from Learning Resources to help me remind the children what each icon represented and meant.  If you are not familiar with Talk Blocks, these are little electronic blocks that you can record your voice onto with the push of a button.  Once your voice is recorded, the children just push the button to hear the message.  The applications of this wonderful tool are only limited to your imagination!  They are particularly useful for recording instructions for learning centers for non-readers!

I used Talk Blocks to remind children which critical thinking skill goes with which icon by recording questions on each one.

But in this case, I recorded questions on the Talk Blocks that went with each critical thinking skill.  For example, in the Inference Talk Block, I recorded the words, "Can you read between the lines?  What is really happening here?  Can you tell me something that you know that the author didn't write down?  That's inference!"  Then I put the icon on the top of the block.  (The clear plastic cover slips off easily so that you can change the picture that shows underneath.)

In the past, I have used the Talk Blocks to record new sight words that the children were having trouble remembering.  I had the class sing the sight word song that went with that particular word, and let the children push the button to hear the song at the writing table.  It was a bit noisy, but fun!

We recorded the children singing just a little bit of one of HeidiSongs' sight word songs on the Talk Block and then put it on the writing table to help them remember their new words.

Below you can see the "Who Song" for teaching kids to spell and read the word "who."

For the "Text to Self" Talk Block, I recorded the following question:  "Does this remind you of anything in your own life or your own world?

For the Prediction Talk Block, I recorded, "What do you think will happen next?  Can you predict what will happen next?  Make a prediction!"

Here are some tips to make the lesson go more smoothly:

1.  I printed one chart in color for my whole class to see, and then printed a black and white chart for each child.  They stopped reading and drew their icons, but I am not positive that was the best way to do it.  My idea was to have them save the sticky notes on that chart and then they would have them saved for the next time.  But so far, I haven't been back to try it again, due to so much traveling!  It would be great to have a nice, big, poster size anchor chart in the classroom of the ThinkMark Chart to leave up and display!

2.  If I could go back and do it again, I would do just the beginning, middle, end, and setting part with sticky notes first and separately from the other thinking skills.  Then I might do the other skills one lesson at a time, I think- just to help the kids focus on one new vocabulary word at a time.  (The vocabulary words are inference, prediction, opinion, and text to self-connections.)  As I said, the skills are not hard to for them to grasp- just the new words!

Don't forget to check out this post on Reading Comprehension Games for more activities that will help teach the parts of a story!

All in all, I think that young children can easily grasp these skills and can be introduced the associated vocabulary.  Like anything, it's just a matter of bringing it down to their level.  Here's another tip:  a friend of mine also shared that she was careful to "label outloud" what she was doing especially when her administrators came through, just to make sure they didn't miss it. For example, "Let's all see if you can predict what will happen next.  We are learning to predict because you are all BIG grown-up, thinkers!  Let's predict."  That way, she was certain that she could be "marked off" on having addressed those critical thinking skills on her evaluation!  I thought that this was a pretty ingenious plan!

What have you experienced?  Do you have any great tricks that you can share? 

- Heidi :)

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